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'Culture of cheating' at Corona del Mar High, parents warn

Colleges and Universities

The mother of a Corona del Mar High School student expelled in a grade-hacking scandal warned district officials of a widespread "culture of cheating" at the high-performing school. 

Newport-Mesa Unified School District trustees announced early Wednesday they had voted to expel 11 students after they allegedly hacked into the district's computer system to change grades and access exams.

Some parents warned that as many as 150 students could be implicated in the cheating, but haven't been investigated.

"You cannot simply throw a handful of students to the wolves," said one parent, whose child was expelled. "There are plenty more kids walking around your campus who are as guilty if not more so than any of the kids wrapped up in this scandal."

The parent suggested the school's "smartest students" are "getting paid to do assignments, write papers and take online tests for other students."

"CDM’s atmosphere of cheating goes far beyond the students that you have marginalized," the parent wrote in a letter.

Last month, the district confirmed that students attached a keylogger — a small device that can be placed in the back of a computer to monitor keystrokes — to several teachers' computers to swipe logins and passwords, allegedly with the help of a private tutor.

With the recorded information, the students allegedly changed grades and accessed English, science and history exams, some at the honors and Advanced Placement levels.

Out of the 398 students who graduated from Corona del Mar High last year, 99% of them attended college in the fall, with the majority of them enrolling at four-year universities, according to the school profile published by the district.

Another concerned parent sent an anonymous email to the board.

"These dozen kids are being made the sacrificial lambs to cover up our real problems: massive cheating, panicky students, pushy parents, unresponsive teachers (why they hire tutors), money-hungry tutors and fearful administrators," the parent wrote.

After hours of deliberating late Tuesday and into Wednesday morning, Newport-Mesa board President Karen Yelsey issued a statement that the decision to expel the students from the school — the most severe penalty being considered — follows the recommendations made by the school principal and district administration. The expelled students from CDM have the option of enrolling at another school in the district.

"The Board of Education has weighed each of the cases presented this evening on an individual basis and in careful detail," Yelsey said. "We’ve focused on the cases for hours in closed session. As a Board of Education, we are unanimous in our resolve to ensure the academic integrity of CDM and the district, as well as in delivering justice for the cases before us."

The district is in the process of auditing 52,000 student grades to see how many may have been altered by students this year. Although some of the students could face criminal charges, none have yet been filed.

Newport Beach detectives searched the Irvine home of Timothy Lance Lai, 28, the private tutor accused of providing the students with the keyloggers and instructing them on how to use the devices to access password-protected accounts. But officials have not been able to locate him to discuss the case.

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hannah.fry@latimes.com

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